Jewel of Persia
The third year of the reign of Xerxes
The river called to Kasia before she saw it, the voice of its sweet waters promising a moment of unbridled sensation. Kasia cast a glance over her shoulder at her young friend. She ought not go. Abba forbade it—rarely enough to keep her away, but today she was not alone. Still. Esther was not opposed to adventure, once one overcame her initial reservation.
Kasia gripped her charge’s hand and grinned. “Come. Let us bathe our feet.”
Esther’s creased forehead made her look far older than twelve. “We could get in trouble.”
Kasia laughed and gave the small hand a tug. “That is half the fun. Oh, fret not, small one. My father is too busy to notice, and your cousin will not be back from the palace gates until evening.”
“But the king’s household is still here. It is unsafe.”
“We will only be a moment.” She wiggled her brows in the way that always made her young friend smile. “It will be fun. Perhaps we will even glimpse the house of women.”
Esther’s eyes brightened, and she let Kasia lead her another few steps. “Do you think Queen Amestris will be out? I have heard she is the most beautiful woman in all the world.”
“Only until little Esther grows up.” She tugged on a lock of the girl’s deep brown hair and urged her on. The Choaspes gurgled up ahead, where it wound around Susa and gave it life.
Esther laughed and plucked a lily, tucked it behind Kasia’s ear. “I will be blessed to have a quarter of your beauty, Kasia. Perhaps if I do, Zechariah will marry me.”
“And then we shall be sisters at last.” Kasia twirled Esther in a circle. A merry thought, though it was hard to imagine Zechariah settling down. He was two years her elder, but showed no signs of maturity at eighteen. If anyone could inspire it, though, it was sweet little Esther. Once she grew up, half the men in the Jewish population would probably bang at Mordecai’s door . . . and probably a few of their Persian neighbors as well.
Esther joined her in her impromptu dance, then sighed happily. “I should very much like sisters and brothers. I am blessed that Cousin Mordecai took me in, but having him as a father provides no siblings.”
Kasia smiled but knew she had better change the subject before Esther fell into memories of the parents she had lost. Though three years past, the tragedy could still pull the girl into a vortex of pain. “Any time you want to borrow one of mine, you are welcome. Ima certainly has her work cut out for her today, trying to keep a rein on them in weather so fair. I daresay much of the royal house will be out to enjoy it. Surely we can spot a few of them.”
“And how will we know the queen? Will she be encrusted with jewels?”
Kasia laughed, even as guilt surged to life. She ought to get home and help her mother with the little ones. Soon. Five minutes and she would be on her way, back in ample time to check the bread and sweep the day’s dirt from the floor. For now, she could spare a thought or two to the palace. “She will be decked out in the finest Persia has to offer, surely.”
“Cousin Mordecai says that the king wears jewels in his beard at his feasts.”
She had heard the same stories but widened her eyes with exaggerated shock for Esther’s benefit. “In his beard? What if one were to fall into his soup?”
Their laughter blended into that of the river, and Kasia’s pulse kicked up. The weather was warming again, and when the sweltering summer heats came, the king’s entourage would leave. Kasia could not wait for the change in seasons. Her body may not tolerate it for long, but there was something intoxicating about feeling the sun’s burning rays upon her head. She always volunteered to gather up the barley seeds they roasted on the roads in the summer, and not just to spare her mother the task. To feel it. To be nearly overwhelmed. To watch the world around her quiver in the rising heat and let herself sway with it.
Esther paused a fathom from the river’s bank. “It will be freezing. The snows still cover the mountains.”
Perfect. Kasia grinned and sat down to unfasten her shoes. “We will only step in for a moment.”
Esther sat, too, and soon they tossed their shoes aside and helped each other up.
They ran the six steps to the river, where icy water lapped at Kasia’s toes. She shrieked. “Oh, it is cold! Why did I let you talk me into this?”
Esther laughed and pushed her another step into the water. “I? Ha! And you are supposed to be the responsible one, taking care of me.”
“Responsibility begs to be escaped now and again.” She waded out one more step, careful to lift her tunic above the water.
When Esther stepped in, she gasped and leapt back onto the bank. “You are mad, Kasia. Your feet will be ice all night.”
A price worth paying for this freedom slicing through her. How could something that touched only one part affect her whole body? Her feet felt the prickles of a thousand needles that coursed like spears up her legs. A shiver sped along her spine, down her arms, and left her laughing. She turned to Esther, intending to tease her into joining her.
The levity died in her throat. Faster than she knew she could move, she jumped back onto the bank and put herself between Esther and the men that stood a stone’s toss away, watching them.
“Kasia? What are you . . .” Esther broke off, having apparently spotted the men. Fear sharpened the intake of her breath. “Your father will kill us.”
“Hush.” Kasia reached back with one arm to be sure her charge remained behind her. Her gaze stayed on the men. They each had a horse beside them, and gold roundels on their clothing. Bracelets, torcs, gems. A million things that shouted nobility and wealth.
A million things that meant trouble.
She dipped her head, gaze on the ground. Had she been alone, she would have grabbed her shoes and run, perhaps with some vague apology as she scurried off. But she could not risk it, not with Esther there too. What if the girl tripped? Or moved too slowly? Kasia could never leave her young friend exposed to two strangers.
One of the horses whinnied, fabric rustled, and footsteps thudded. Kasia tossed modesty to the wind and glanced up.
The taller of the two men moved forward. His were the more expensive clothes, the heavier gold. He had a dark, trim beard that did nothing to hide his grin. “My apologies for startling you. We should have continued on our way after we realized your cry was not for help, but I was intrigued. You often wade into the river swollen from mountain snows?”
Esther gripped Kasia’s tunic and pulled her back a half step to whisper, “Kasia, just give your apologies so we can go.”
Sage advice, except she doubted a man of import would take kindly to his questions going unanswered. She forced a small smile. “Not often, lord, no. I rarely have the time, and I should not have taken it today. My parents are expecting me home. If you will excuse me.”
The man held out a hand. “Far be it from me to detain you, fair one. But it is not safe for a beautiful young woman and her sister to be out alone. Do you not know that the court is yet in Susa? What if some nobleman concerned only with his pleasure came across you?”
The words ought to have terrified her, given the sweep of his gaze. But his tone . . . teasing, warm. A perfect match to that easy smile.
Her chin edged up. “I expect if such a man were to come upon me, he would try to charm me before accosting me. Then I would have ample time to convince him that his pleasure would be better pursued elsewhere.”
He chuckled, took another step closer. “But on the off-chance that your wit would fail to persuade such a man—there are some very determined men in the king’s company—I feel compelled to see you safely home.”
“No! I mean . . . it is not far, we will be fine. I thank you for your concern . . .”
The man’s eyes narrowed, his smile faltered. “You must be a Jew.”
A logical deduction—her trepidation at being caught with a Persian man would not be shared by a woman of his own people.
Still. The tone of his voice when he said the word Jew was enough to make her shoulders roll back. As if they were less because they had been brought to this land as captives a century ago. As if they had not proven themselves over the years.
She narrowed her eyes right back. “Proudly.” Not waiting for a reply, she spun away and grabbed Esther’s hand.
“Kasia, our shoes.”
“We shall grab them on the way by and put them on when we get back,” she murmured.
A mild curse came from behind them, along with quick footsteps. “Come now, you must not walk home barefoot. Please, fair one, you need not fear me. Sit. Put on your shoes.”
He reached the leather strips before they did, scooped them up, and held them out. The gleam of amusement still in his eyes belied the contrition on his face. He offered a crooked smile, his gaze never leaving Kasia’s.
She had little choice. Esther’s fingers still in hers, she reached out and took their shoes.
Esther pressed closer to her side and hissed, “Kasia.”
The man’s smile evened out. “That is your name? Kasia? Lovely.”
“I will pass the compliment along to my parents.” She would not ask him his. Certainly not. Instead, she handed off Esther’s shoes to her with a nod of instruction.
Esther huffed but bent down to wrap the leather around her feet and secure it above her ankles. Kasia just stood there.
The man arched a brow. “I have no intentions of hoisting you over my shoulder the second your attention is elsewhere.”
“And I would see you prove it with my own eyes.”
He shook his head, smiling again, and backed up a few steps. “There. You can sit and put them on, and you will be able to see if I come any closer. Is that satisfactory?”
Though it felt like defeat to do so, it would have been petulant to refuse. She sat and swallowed back the bitter taste of capitulation. Glanced up at the man and found him watching her intently, his smile now an echo.
Who was he? Someone wealthy, obviously. Perhaps one of the king’s officials, or even a relative. She guessed him to be in his mid thirties, his dark mane of hair untouched by grey. He had a strong, straight nose, bright eyes. Features that marked him as noble as surely as the jewelry he wore.
But it was neither the proportions of his face nor his fine attire that made her fingers stumble with her shoes. It was the expression he wore. Intent and amused. Determined and intrigued.
He fingered one of the ornaments on his clothing, gaze on her. “Who is your father, lovely Kasia?”
She swallowed, wondering at the wisdom of answering. Surely he had no intentions of seeing her home now, of . . . of . . . what? What could possibly come of such a short encounter? It was curiosity that made him ask. It could be nothing more. “Kish, the son of Ben-Geber. He is a woodworker.”
Esther made a disturbed squeak beside her, but Kasia ignored her.
The man’s mouth turned up again. “Kish, the son of Ben-Geber. And I assume he is not inclined toward his daughter socializing with Persians? It is a prejudice I find odd. Are you not in our land? Have you not chosen to remain here, even after King Cyrus gave you freedom to leave? It seems very . . . ungrateful for you Jews to remain so aloof.”
Kasia sighed and moved to her second shoe. “Perhaps. But it is an outlook hewn from the continued prejudice the Persians have against us.”
“Some, perhaps.” The man flicked a gaze his companion’s way. “But most of us recognize that the Jews have become valuable members of the empire. Take Susa for example.” He waved a hand toward the city. “It is such a pleasure to winter here largely because of the Jews who withstand the heat in the summer and keep the city running. We are not all blind to that.”
She inclined her head in acknowledgment. “And some of us recognize the generosity of Xerxes, the king of kings, and his fathers before him, and are grateful for the opportunity to flourish here.”
“But . . .” He cocked his head, grinned. “Your father is not one of those?”
Kasia sighed and, finished with her shoes, stood. “My father has lived long under the heel of his Persian neighbors. Were it not for the size of our family, he would have returned to Israel long ago.”
“Ah. Well, fair and generous Kasia, I thank you for taking the time to speak with me. Your wit and eloquence have brightened my day.” He stepped closer, slowly and cautiously.
Esther shifted beside her, undoubtedly spooked by his nearness. But Kasia held her ground and tilted her head up to look into his face when he was but half an arm away. “And I thank you, sir, for your kind offer to see us home, even if I must decline.”
“Hmm. A shame, that. I would have enjoyed continuing our conversation on the walk back to the city.”
With her eyes locked on his, she was only vaguely aware of his movement before warm fingers took her hand. She jolted, as much from the sensation racing up her arm as from the shock of the gesture.
He lifted her hand and pressed his lips to her palm. Her breath tangled up in her chest. If her father saw this, he would kill her where she stood.
But what was the harm in a moment’s flirtation with an alluring stranger? He would return to his ornate house and forget about her. She would go to her modest dwelling and remember this brief, amazing encounter forever.
A stolen moment. Nothing more.
His other hand appeared in her vision even as he arched a brow. “A gift for the beautiful Jewess.”
That tangled breath nearly choked her when she saw the thick silver torc in his hand, lions’ heads on each end. “Lord, I cannot—”
“I will it.” He slid the bracelet onto her arm, under her sleeve until it reached a part of her arm thick enough to hold it up, past her elbow. Challenge lit his features. “If you do not want it, you may return it when next we meet.”
“I . . .” She could think of nothing clever to say, no smooth words of refusal.
With an endearing smirk, he kissed her knuckles and then released her and strode away. Kasia may have stood there for the rest of time, staring blankly at where he had been, had Esther not gripped her arm and tugged.
“Kasia, what are you thinking? You cannot accept a gift from a Persian man! What will your father say?”
“Nothing pleasant.” Blowing a loose strand of hair out of her face, Kasia let her sleeve settle over her arm. It covered all evidence of the unrequested silver. “He need not know.”
“Kasia.” Esther’s torment wrinkled her forehead again. “What has gotten into you? Surely you are not . . . ?”
She glanced over to where the man mounted his horse and turned with one last look her way, topped with a wink. Blood rushed to her cheeks. “Perhaps I am. He is a fine man, is he not?”
Esther sighed, laughed a little. “He seemed it, yes. But your father will never allow you to marry a Persian. As soon as he decides between Ben-Hesed and Michael, you will become a fine Jewish wife to a fine Jewish man.”
“Yes, I know.” Her breath leaked out, washing some of the excitement of the last few minutes away with it. “It hardly matters. The loss of one bracelet will probably not bother him. He will consider it restitution for our dismay and think of it no more.”
Esther lifted her brows. “But he said he would see you again.”
“Do you really think a man of his station will bother himself over a Jewish girl whose father cannot afford a dowry?”
“I suppose not.”
Kasia looped her elbow through Esther’s. “Come, little one. We had better hurry home.”
Esther renewed her smile. “You have quite the romantic story now. Someday, when you are an old married woman, you can pull out that torc and give it to your daughter along with a tale to set her heart to sighing.”
Yes . . . someday.